The Story Behind the Burns Amendment

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The 2004 Burns Amendment to the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act eviscerates thirty years of federal protection for wild horses, allowing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to sell older and unadoptable animals at livestock auctions, where they will most likely be picked up by kill buyers. A plan for this sale/kill authority had been in the works for a few years and had been defeated time and again due to public outcry. What follows is an overview of the events that led to such an underhanded piece of legislation.© Laurel Monreal Photography horsesofnature.com

The funding Congress wants to stop spending on the wild horse program was unnecessarily spent in the first place, by aggressively removing wild horses from public lands to cater to special interests (cattle/oil/hunting). A 1991 GAO report found no evidence that wild horses have a negative impact on public lands, where they are outnumbered by private cattle at least 200 to 1. In fact, a 1982 National Academy of Sciences report states that private livestock is the primary cause of overgrazing on public lands. Yet, private cattle on public lands represents less than 3% of America's beef supply.

In 2001, the BLM asked for an increase in budget to $29 million a year to remove about 24,000 horses. Close to that mark in early 2004, momentum built: Nevada asked for an additional $7.6 million for round-ups, even though the adoption pipelines and holding facilities were already saturated. Four-year contracts were granted to private ranchers in the Midwest to handle the overflow, at a great expense of tax dollars. The temporary nature of these arrangements was a sure sign of things to come. Still, the BLM round-ups continued: a plan that was not only ethically irresponsible, but economically non-viable.

A few years ago, a Montana rancher proposed to send 10,000 wild horses to Mexico, the second largest horse meat supplier in the world, for his private enterprise craftily dubbed the "Sonora Wild Horse Repatriation Project." Despite persistent lobbying on the rancher's part, federal wild horse protection prevented this plan from becoming reality; another plan had to be hatched. Enter Senator Burns (Montana) and his stealth amendment.

Here is how the plan unfolded, as relayed by Cathy Barcomb, Administrator of the Nevada Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses (a state agency), at an April 2005 Commission meeting: “BLM had asked Congress for an additional 36 million dollars over 4 years to implement their new plan because they knew they would be taking approximately 12 thousand wild horses off of public lands per year, BLM knew they could average 7,000 horses per year in the adoption program, they knew there would be approximately 5,000 horses in excess each year. They knew it and planned for it. They knew that by the 4th and 5th years that they would have 20,000 horses in holding, that’s what the extra funds were for. […] [T]hey got all the horses in the sanctuaries, as planned, and then voted into slaughter all of them. I feel it was somewhat of a setup, we were betrayed. We all bought into the plan and supported it, only to be turned on once the horses came off the lands."

Senator Burns’ allegiance becomes clear when he states, in defense of his beleaguered Amendment: "I'm in the livestock business, and I've bought and sold horses all my life. Basically, the marketplace works." Maybe Senator Burns needs to be reminded he is now in the U.S. Senate, not in the livestock business. In the meantime, here is an example of the marketplace at work for wild horses: recently, a private venture similar to the Mexico plan - but in the US – led to the biggest horse neglect case in US history, after hundreds of wild horses were left without proper feed and water.

Other solutions were and are available. A March 2004 USGS report shows that fertility control methods would save over 7.7 million tax-dollars annually. Redirecting federal funds from costly and traumatic round-ups to minimal in-the-wild management would save millions.